Since leaving the Caravans, the hottest gospel-singing group in the land, and striking out on her own over 50 years ago, Shirley Caesar has been sweeping across America and the world, delivering her Christian message in electrifying song and sermon, picking up 12 Grammy Awards, 18 Dove Awards, 14 Stellar Awards, a Star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame, and numerous other honors along her path. She has been a standard-bearer for traditional African-American gospel music, yet at the same time has been unafraid to challenge convention and take the genre in daring new directions
Born and raised in Durham, North Carolina, Caesar was greatly inspired by her father, Big Jim Caesar, a farmer who sang with an a cappella quartet called “The Just Come Four.” He died of a brain seizure when she was 10, and to help support her semi-invalid mother, Hallie Caesar, and a dozen brothers and sisters, she hit the road as a gospel soloist with a one-legged evangelist named Leroy Johnson. Billed as “Baby Shirley,” she cut her first single, “I’d Rather Have Jesus” backed with “I Know Jesus Will Save,” for Federal Records. The label on the 78 RPM disc described her as a “12 year old lass”, although she was actually 13 at the time of the recording.
“I got my call to the ministry when I was in college in 1957,” says Caesar, who was majoring in business administration at North Carolina College. She put her studies and her plans of becoming an evangelist on hold when the Caravans, a fast-rising gospel group from Chicago, passed through Durham the following year. They were minus a member and Caesar convinced leader Albertina Walker that she knew all parts. Walker was so impressed with what she heard she invited the teenager to join the group. Caesar moved to Chicago and sang with the Caravans for the next eight years.
During her tenure, the group boasted other dynamic lead singers, most notably Inez Andrews, Cassietta George, and Dorothy Norwood. However, it was Caesar’s emotionally galvanizing delivery and highly animated stage demeanor that were central in making the Caravans the most popular female gospel group since the Ward Singers. Caesar’s intense leads were featured on such Caravans’ hits as “Sweeping Through The City,” “No Coward Soldier,” “Holy Boldness,” and “Choose Ye This Day.”
Caesar preached her first sermon in Chicago while a member of the Caravans, but on record and in concert her spoken testimony were limited to sermonettes within the bodies of songs such as “Hallelujah, Tis Done.” By the early ‘60s, during breaks in the group’s schedule, she began getting offers to sing and preach apart from the Caravans. Sometimes, however, last minute engagements would come along for the group, and Walker would ask Caesar to cancel her own.“I did not like disappointing people,” Caesar says. “Tina would give me time off, and then dates would come in, but my first allegiance was to the Caravans. I knew that something would have to give.”
Caesar finally left the Caravans in 1966, signed with Hobb Records, and began appearing as “Evangelist Shirley Caesar.” Caesar recalls, “My first few months as a solo artist went so well that I called my mom and asked her to send Ann.” Ann Caesar became a charter member of her sister’s new background group, the “Caesar Singers”.
Shirley Caesar’s solo saga has been a series of one triumph after another. In 1975, her gospel version of “No Charge,” originally a No. 1 country hit, crossed over to both the R&B and pop charts. Three years later, “First Lady,” her debut for the United Artists-distributed by Roadshow label, sold so well that it reached No. 36 on Billboard’s R&B album chart. Most notably her recording “Live In Chicago,” featuring her classic “Hold My Mule” remained No. 1 on Billboard’s gospel chart for 52 weeks. Years later her line from this song, “I got beans, greens, potatoes, tomatoes,” went viral as an internet challenge, introducing her to a whole new audience. Understandably, today she is known as the Reigning Queen of Gospel.
Over the decades, Caesar has become easily the most visible gospel singer in the world. She has collaborated on disc with such artists as Aretha Franklin, Al Green, Whitney Houston, Michelle Williams, Patti LaBelle, Gladys Knight, Kirk Franklin, Dottie Peoples, Christian Rapper, Tonex and producer and singer J. Moss. She has also appeared on television in the series, “Good News,” “Soulfood,” “The Parkers” and “Family Time,” on Broadway in “This is My Song and the “Born to Sing” trilogy, and in motion pictures “Gospel,” “The Preacher’s Wife,” “Why Do Fools Fall In Love,” “The Fighting Temptations,” and “The Unseen.”
Caesar’s plans of completing her education and becoming a minister, interrupted by her stint with the Caravans, eventually reached fruition. In 1984 she graduated Magna Cum Laude from Shaw University with a bachelor’s degree in business administration. In 1990 she was ordained as a pastor by her husband, Bishop Harold Ivory Williams. She currently serves as the Senior Pastor of the Mount Calvary Word of Faith Church in Raleigh, North Carolina.